Supporting Children with a Parent in Prison

Supporting Children with a Parent in Prison

The National Information Centre of Children of Offenders (NICCO) estimate that 310,000 children every year have a parent in prison in England and Wales and 10,000 visits are made by children to our public prisons every week. If these statistics weren’t concerning enough themselves, many of these children do not receive adequate support during their parent’s incarceration and beyond, meaning a large number will experience a significant and sometimes dangerous life-long impact.  

An Adverse Childhood Experience 

In 1998, Dr Vincent Felitti and his colleagues published the first study into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). In this study, it was found that some significant life events have a life-long impact on children and the direction that their lives may take. A questionnaire was used to document how many of these ‘ACEs’ a child had experienced, and a direct correlation was made to things such as shorter life expectancy, use of drugs or alcohol, underage pregnancy and suicide. Some of the these ACEs include experiencing abuse or neglect, parental mental health or substance issues, family breakdown and having a parent in prison.  

Parents in Prison 

Some children will have been around crime for most of their lives, they may be familiar with drugs, violence or abuse, whereas others may come from stable backgrounds; but no matter the circumstances, the charge or the sentence, having a parent incarcerated will have a significant impact on any children involved and their families.  

Schools and education settings are becoming much better equipped to cope with mental health issues experienced by children and many now approach learning and behaviour in a trauma-informed way, but many children who have a parent in prison are not having their emotional needs met. This can be because the school are unaware of the parent’s circumstances or they do not know how to best support the child. For the impact of this incarceration to be minimised, schools need to be proactive in supporting children and their families through the pain, distress and disruption of arrest, trial and imprisonment.  

Emotional Overload 

There are many different emotions surrounding parents in prison and no two children will feel the same. For some children, a parent being sent away will break a family apart and cause a whole new level of upset and disruption, whereas for others it may be a good thing and bring an end to ongoing abuse or neglect. Whatever the circumstances, children will need significant support to manage these emotions, to understand and explain how they are feeling and to learn to self-regulate in order to manage big feelings when they happen.  

When a child has a parent who has been sentenced to prison, they may have witnessed a whole host of distressing situations before the sentencing even happens, this may vary from police raids to violence, to gang involvement or drug use or to watching their parent be arrested and forcibly taken away. To best support this, schools need to gather as much information as possible, which may be from the police or a social worker. This way, individualised support can be put in place and that child’s lived experience will be better understood. 

Stress on the family 

When a parent goes to prison, family life is often seriously damaged, this can include: 

  • Financial struggles or poverty.
  • Family arguments.
  • Removal from the family home or being placed into care. 
  • Separation from siblings or other family members. 
  • Increased responsibility for looking after siblings or around the house. 

A report by the Prison Reform Trust in 2017 reveals more than 16,000 children and young people were removed or uprooted from their family homes because their mothers were sentenced to prison. As a result of this ongoing distress, children who experience the imprisonment of a parent are more likely to have poorer outcomes including lower school attainment and an increased risk of truancy, school exclusion and socio-emotional difficulties. 

What can you do in your setting to best support these children? 

Focus on open communication: Children will need time to talk and share how they feel without judgement. 

Prioritise stability: Support children by providing structure and stability at school, as home life may feel chaotic and unstable. Routine, consistency and boundaries are key. 

Work with the whole family: A parent in prison does not only impact the child – but the whole family will also need support and should be included in work completed with the child. 

Allow the child to grieve: Children may experience bereavement type feelings and feel a sense of loss- they will need time to process and be able to talk about how they feel. 

Signpost: There are lots of organisations out there who support families involved with the prison system – have these details to hand to share with parents, families and older children. 


It has been proved that the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences can be minimised if the right support and protective factors are put into place. Schools who take on a trauma-informed approach, can help children who have parents in prison to recover and thrive throughout the experience, and by providing them with chance to talk and effective coping strategies, they can minimise the risk of life-long damage being done. Schools who are unsure of how to support these children can reach out to organisations such as NICCO and PACT for further information. 

About the Author

Lucie WelchLucie Welch – Adviser, Services For Education

Lucie Welch has worked in the field of Primary Education for the last 15 years, holding the positions of Assistant Head of School, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Attendance Lead and Designated Teacher for Looked After Children. Through working across several local authorities and within multi-academy trusts, Lucie has garnered a passion for safeguarding and supporting children and young people to enable them to thrive.

At Services For Education, Lucie is an integral part of the Safeguarding team, sharing her expertise with schools, colleges, trusts, and other educational settings across the city of Birmingham and beyond. Dedicated to improving safeguarding practices in an actionable and impactful way, Lucie works closely with settings to provide bespoke training, supports with reflection on their own practices during Safeguarding audits and always strives to contribute to a better learning environment for all children. Through delivery of statutory training for DSLs and Safer Recruitment, Lucie works with colleagues in all age ranges and is a source of expertise within these areas.

Lucie also wears other important hats within the School Support Team. Not only is she dedicated to ensuring the safety and well-being of students through her role in safeguarding, but she also plays a key part in the PSHE/RSE and Health for Life teams. Additionally, Lucie partners with the Best Practice Network to deliver the Early Career Framework, supporting new teachers in their professional development.


Our expert advisers can provide in-school visits to deliver sessions on any specific safeguarding issues that are relevant to your setting. We also offer consultancy and a detailed safeguarding audit. We will work with you to understand your exact requirements.

Get in touch with us today if you’d like to discuss bespoke Safeguarding training for your school.

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